Walking down the streets of Malda Town, one is likely to bump into rows of clay idols left to dry in the sun near Netaji More, a busy area of the town. The flawlessly shaped figures of deities belong to Jyotirmoy Pal’s studio. Among the deities, one is most likely to come across a clay mask, also left out to dry. Pal is the only artisan in Malda Town who is known to make clay masks. He etches the faces of gods and goddesses on clay and makes them look no less lively than ones made from wood. “Usually you will find masks made of wood, like in Dinajpur. Many people make masks out of modern materials like paper mache or fibre. But our family specializes in making clay masks. Through 13 generations, our predecessors have been making masks for different purposes,” said Jyotirmoy.
In Malda and in most parts of North Bengal, masks are used when performing Gamira, a form of folk dance. Gamira involves depiction of different mythological stories aiming to appease the gods and drive away evil power. “The festival essentially starts from the Bengali month of Chaitra and continues till the month of Jaistha. At that time, the narration is based on stories of Shiva,” said Pal. There is a great demand for Pal’s masks in Malda and beyond. “I get orders from Jalpaiguri, Purnea and other places where these festivals are observed in a big way,” said Pal, whose father also wrote Gamira songs.
Not just for dance, but the masks are also worshipped by the people of North Bengal. Unlike other parts of Bengal, mask worship is a popular practice here. “The mask that I am making now is of Chamunda Kali for worship at a house in the town. But we do not apply paint on the masks used for worship. The Chamunda Kali mask will be smeared with orange vermillion and the eyes and other features are painted,” said Pal.
Other than masks, Pal’s predecessors made earthenware utensils. Later generations started making idols. The first person of Pal’s family who started making clay masks was, incidentally, a woman. “My father and grandfather told me when I was young that the first person who started the tradition was a woman but no one knows her name,” he said. Making masks is a tough job, says Pal. “Preparing the clay for mask takes a long time and effort, once that is done, formation does not take too long. All decorations, including the crown is made from a dice,” said Pal.
Not just the faces of gods and goddesses, Pal has also made masks for museums like Ananda Niketan Kirtishala in Bagnan. “They had taken me to the museum and I had to make masks of animals and other figures as they required,” said Pal.